Autistic Book Party, Episode 61: Displacement

Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.

The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.

Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.

Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.

To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.

The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.

Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.

There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.

Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Mr. Try Again” (Nightmare, March 2018)

[Autistic author] When Merc does straight-up horror, they do NOT fuck around. This story will make your skin crawl. It involves a gruesome monster who eats boys and imprisons girls, a girl who got away from him, how she lives as an adult with her trauma and the things she has been made to do – and how she responds when things come full circle and she returns to confront the monster again. It’s really effectively done, and the imprisoned girls get their revenge in the end. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “Continuity Imperative” (The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol 7. No. 1, 2017)

[Autistic author] A short poem about the attempt of an engineer to fix an injured biological spaceship. Visceral and urgent, easily capturing the engineer’s desperation. [Recommended-2]

*

Brendan Williams-Childs, “Schwaberow, Ohio” (Meanwhile, Elsewhere, 2017; I read it reprinted on Medium)

Walt, a trans autistic teen in the rural Midwest, deals with dysfunctional, ableist caregivers and with the political spectre of invasive neurological treatments which are becoming increasingly common as “cures” both for autism and for gender dysphoria. This type of story and setting are a hard sell for me but Walt is a kind of autistic protagonist we need to see more of – not only for his transness but for his cultural position (he’s a confused, working-class boy in the country, not any kind of STEM genius) and for his difficulties with expressive speech. The narration is matter-of-fact and shows the atypical patterns of Walt’s thinking and the wrongness of the dismissive ways he’s treated, along with an alertness and thoughtfulness beyond what is apparent to the other characters.

The story is of course anti-cure, but I am slightly uneasy with how the cure theme is handled. Walt’s unwillingness to be cured is based mainly in a knee-jerk horror of the idea of brain implants coupled with strong dehumanization of public figures who do have them. He’s right to be horrified by non-consensual neurological treatment, but the dehumanization angle bothers me, especially when it lumps in other forms of assistive cyborg technologies along with the brain implants. I don’t think that this is a story that would come off well for readers with prosthetic limbs, for instance. [YMMV]

*

Richard Ford Burley, “A Study in Pink and Gold” (Abyss & Apex, June 2019)[Autistic author] This is the story of a painter and a group of aliens, called “Drifters,” which have mysteriously appeared on Earth and are unaggressive but difficult to communicate with. The painter’s patient, careful observation of them on their own terms leads to a strange, lifelong cross-species friendship. There’s no overt autism in this story, but the wordless and peaceful interactions between human and alien in the story will ring true to many autistic people’s experiences, either with each other or with other kinds of people and creatures; or, for some, it is a kind of interaction we long to have. [Recommended-2]

*

Yoon Ha Lee, “The Mermaid Astronaut” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 27, 2020)

[Autistic author] A delightfully gentle retelling of The Little Mermaid in which a mermaid grows up longing to explore the stars, and a team of aliens arrives willing to grant her wish. I like the way Esserala’s family supports her in her dreams and the way she isn’t pushed into any artificial conflict between her home culture and the spacefaring culture she joins, nor into any need to change or silence herself for a love interest. The inherent difficulties of space travel, even when everyone involved is kind and helpful, provide enough conflict to carry the story by themselves. [Recommended-2]

*

Rita Chen, “Strangleknot” (Liminality, Spring 2020)

[Autistic author] An affecting and vivid poem about ongoing trauma, pain, and the way words and memories get stuck in the body. Many autistic readers will be able to relate to the feeling of not being able to let one’s hurts go, no matter how one tries. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60: The Deep

The cover of Rivers Solomon's book "The Deep," showing a wajinru underwater looking up towards the ocean's surface.

Today’s Book: “The Deep” by Rivers Solomon

The Plot: The wajinru, a group of mermaid-like creatures in the deep sea, are the descendants of pregnant African women thrown overboard from slave ships. Only one “historian” among them is chosen to remember their traumatic past, while the others blissfully forget – but this history is a burden that can’t be borne alone.

Autistic Character(s): Yetu, the young historian whose point of view carries most of the book; and Oori, a human she befriends when she escapes to the surface.

I’ve been really excited to read this Nebula-nominated novella by Solomon, who previously wrote “An Unkindness of Ghosts.” Like the other book, this one is a meditation on individual and community trauma which centers the perspectives of Black queer and non-neurotypical characters.

Yetu is a wonderful, complex character who has been carrying her community’s memories since she was fourteen. More sensitive than other historians due to her neurotype, she struggles intensely, often getting so lost in her remembrances that she forgets to eat or care for herself – or so distressed by them that she self-harms. The rest of her community cares about her but can’t understand how to help, since they themselves have no concept of what trauma is. Once a year, there’s a religious ceremony where the memories are temporarily given back to the community. During this ceremony, Yetu escapes, fearing that if she takes the memories for herself again, she won’t survive.

I found Yetu’s struggles to be extremely realistic for a traumatized autistic person without much support. (I say this as an autistic person with my own set of secret teenage traumas, though I can’t speak from experience about the race-related aspects of the book.) She struggles not only with the direct effects of carrying traumatic memories, but also with guilt, ambivalence, and worry for her community when she escapes them. Solomon’s narration also contains some of the most intriguing descriptions I’ve ever seen about how fantasy psychic abilities and autistic hypersensitivities might combine:

Most of the time, Yetu kept her senses dulled. as a child, she’d learned to shut out what she could of the world, lest it overwhelm her into fits. But now she had to open herself back up, to make her body a wound again so Amaha’s words would ring against her skin more clearly.
Yetu closed her eyes and honed in on the vibrations of the deep, purposefully resensitizing her scaled skin to the onslaught of the circus that is the sea. It was a matter of reconnecting her brain to her body and lowering the shields she’d put in place in her mind to protect herself. As she focused, the world came in. The water grew colder, the pressure more intense, the salt denser. She could parse each granule. Individual crystals of the flaky white mineral scraped against her.
All of this may make “The Deep” sound like a very grim, depressing book. Despite the subject matter I actually did not have a grim or depressing experience reading. Maybe it’s the ocean setting, or maybe it’s the way the book focuses on the people carrying the memories and on their simple, direct relationships, rather than the details of the atrocities that caused the memories to happen in the first place. I found many parts of “The Deep” very moving, but I also found them more easily emotionally approachable than “An Unkindness of Ghosts.” I was able to devour “The Deep” at an enthusiastic pace and enjoy it fully.
(To be clear: emotionally difficult, dark, wrenching books are necessary things, and marginalized authors should be allowed to write them. I can’t believe this needs to be said, but in the light of recent furores over dark content in queer books and fanfic I feel it does. “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is an excellent book and I was glad I read that, too. I am not making a moral value judgment. I am simply describing how my subjective emotional experience of both books differed.)

Maybe it’s also the way “The Deep” ends with hope and reconciliation, as Yetu and her community work on alternative ways to hold the rememberings and care for each other. I found it especially meaningful that, although Yetu is in many ways the archetypal young protagonist who’s different and burdened, it’s her loved ones in the community who help her to find the eventual solution, and who insist to her that her safety and happiness are worthwhile. These are intergenerational, community traumas, and only the whole community working together can hold them.

Autism isn’t central to this story, but it’s unmistakable and deeply layered into the characters, both for Yetu and for Oori. Yetu is deeply affected by her sensory and emotional sensitivities, which were always present, but which are exacerbated by the memories she is chosen to carry, and which isolate her in deeper and crueller ways than the historians before her. Oori is not a POV character, and her autism is marked more by external traits: blunt speech, unfriendliness, lack of eye contact, and the puzzled reactions of other humans. Delightfully, Oori’s difficulty getting along with other humans is the very thing that draws Yetu to her:

“I just mean that she’s different, you know? Not like us. She’s not so good with, hm, how do you say, human interaction and any trappings of decorum or rules. I suppose that’s why she prefers animals to people. Most animals don’t exchange hellos and ask how the other is. They just exist next to one another.”

Yetu’s ears and skin perked at the sound of that. Oori preferred animals, did she?

“Perfect, then. I’m not human,” said Yetu.

Oori is not only Yetu’s friend and possible love interest, but she’s also the last survivor of her own human culture, and she has a perspective on the importance of memory which both challenges and helps Yetu to hear.

Queer and intersex themes are unmistakably layered in, too. For instance, there’s the odd, awkward, somewhat adorable scene in which Yetu and Oori discuss how sex works for their respective species and whether they’d like to try it with each other. The way this conversation plays out is a way that would only ever work for a pair of queer autistic characters, and that alone makes it fun to read.

There’s a lovely afterword which describes “The Deep”‘s origins: before it was a book by Rivers Solomon it was a song by the rap group clipping. and clipping.’s song is in turn based on the work of other artists. The concept of the wajinru in the sea has been told and retold from multiple perspectives, gaining something each time. In clipping.’s song, there’s a war between the wajinru and the humans because of the terrible way the humans treat the sea. In “The Deep,” this war exists as backstory; it’s another thing for both Yetu’s and Oori’s sides to remember and learn from. I love this kind of intertextuality and I hope the concept continues to inspire even more successive groups of artists.

In short, this is an excellent book, well worthy of its Nebula nomination, and you all should read it.

The Verdict: Highly Recommended

Disclosure: Rivers Solomon and I are acquainted online and have talked to each other sometimes. I read their book by buying a copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 59: Tone of Voice

Today’s Book: “Tone of Voice” by Kaia Sønderby, a sequel to “Failure to Communicate”

The Plot: The Hands and Voices, a species of symbiotic whale- and squid-like beings, want to join the Starsystems Alliance. The only person they’ll negotiate with is Xandri Corelel, an autistic woman who interprets alien behavior for a living. But Xandri’s enemies are about to disrupt the negotiations in a spectacular way.

Autistic Character(s): Xandri.

Yay! Xandri Corelel is back! You might recall from my “Failure to Communicate” review that she is one of my favorite autistic characters ever, and one of the most relatable characters for me personally. Plus now there are WHALES! You really can’t go wrong with this setup, and Sønderby does not, in fact, go wrong with it.

I really like the Hands and Voices. Partly because SPACE WHALES, SPACE SQUID, it is not difficult to appease me with these topics. But they are also just a really nice, sweet-natured bunch of aliens with some very cool underwater technology. I especially love the way they approach the idea of group identity. Each Voice (whale) is paired with a small group of symbiotic Hands (squid) and their language appears to have no singular pronouns, using words that are translated as “we” whether they’re talking about an individual organism, a Voice with their attendant Hands, a whole pod of Hands and Voices, or even larger groups.

Because the Hands and Voices are so nice and cooperative, and because they already trust Xandri, the actual diplomacy in this book is much simpler than in “Failure to Communicate.” We get much less of Xandri’s efforts to puzzle through difficult social situations, because apart from a deliciously tense standoff near the end, most of this book’s social situations are pretty straightforward. A good chunk of the story is positively idyllic, with Xandri and her co-workers enjoying the pleasant beachside environment and swimming around in the ocean while they figure out how they would meet the Hands and Voices’ needs in space. Until, of course, some anti-alien militia show up…

But just because the diplomacy is simple this time, that doesn’t mean we don’t get good, nuanced Autism Content. Xandri has grown as a person since the first book, but much of that growth has been difficult; the ending of that book had her temporarily exiled after taking the fall for a diplomatic upset. She’s become more aware of the awful things doctors used to say about autistic people – and, without an autistic community around her, she spends a lot of time worrying that these things might be true. Even when her actions on the page are clearly selfless and her emotions in the narration are deeply caring – and when other characters make a point to recognize how much she cares – Xandri still worries that maybe she’s heartless because that’s what she’s read about herself. As usual for Xandri, this is very relatable to me!

Xandri is practicing assertiveness, a skill that she first tried at a pivotal moment in “Failure to Communicate.” Thanks to her long study of human behavior, she’s startlingly good at it, able to stare down scary military officers and come out ahead. But it’s an immensely draining skill for her to use, and it leaves her feeling uncomfortable and guilty.

Captain Chui – Xandri’s longtime boss – encourages her at this. She is startled when Xandri also uses her newfound assertiveness to question her own orders. I appreciate the nuance in how this is handled – especially the way Captain Chui does listen to Xandri’s concerns, even if she doesn’t ultimately agree. A worse person might easily have shut her down and told her assertiveness wasn’t appropriate here, but Captain Chui recognizes that assertiveness isn’t real unless a person can use it when they choose to, even against you.

Xandri draws insight from her own autistic experience in softer moments as well:

“Sometimes I wonder,” I said, as we started down the dock.
“Hmm?”
“If we’re doing the right thing, I mean. Bringing them into the Alliance. They seem so innocent…”
That caught her attention. She swiveled to look at me, her brows furrowed. “Because they see the world in a different way than you do? Because they interact with it differently? Because they don’t have the exact same-“
“Whoa!” I held up my hands in surrender. “Easy, fireball. Didn’t mean it as an insult, I swear. It’s just… well, look at ’em.”
“I know.” Xandri sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, mussing her ponytail. “It’s not like the thought never crossed my mind, but… it’s wrong to judge them as too innocent, simply because their expression appears innocent to us. They’re a sapient species, shown to be shrewd in negotiations, as seen by their nebula pearl trade. They’re smart, technological, and they know to be cautious about other sapients; in fact, they learned that lesson quicker than most. This is their choice to make and-and it would be wrong to try to take their choices from them.”
She stared straight ahead as she spoke and, not for the first time, I got the feeling her words weren’t just about the Hands and Voices. She spoke like that sometimes, like she was seeing a problem from the inside, like she’d experienced it herself.

 

She also gets to do one of my new favorite tropes, namely, overly literal autistic banter in an action scene:

“Maybe we should test your theory,” Santino said, raising the gun and pointing it at me.
“Hypothesis.”
“What?”
“I’m enough of a scientist to confess that I don’t have enough evidence to call it a theory just yet.”

 

I mentioned in my review of “Failure to Communicate” that there was some setup I hoped would lead to a queer romance. Surprise, it does! Kinda. In the first book, Xandri was attracted to Diver and Kiri, two of her closest friends on the Carpathia. The attraction seemed mutual but nothing quite happened. In this book, there’s a clear romantic slow burn between Xandri and Diver, and they do get into a relationship, though it’s still new and tentative when the book ends. Xandri has past trauma that makes it difficult for her to navigate a relationship’s early stages. Sønderby handles this with a light touch, showing Xandri’s hesitance and discomfort and Diver’s efforts to make space for her, but without getting bogged down in trauma details.

Xandri is still attracted to Kiri as well. The book goes out of its way to remind us that Kiri is polyamorous, and even has a scene of the three of them tiredly cuddling, but Xandri is already overwhelmed by dealing with romantic feelings for one person, let alone two, so the poly aspect of the story doesn’t get very developed here.

In other “Xandri is the most relatable character” news, some of her exchanges with Diver feel like they could have been taken word for word from me and my nesting partner:

“Don’t be acting like this is your fault, fireball.”
I lifted my head in surprise.
“Four and a half years,” Diver said, tapping the tip of my nose with a finger. “Long time to know a person, even one who hides as much of herself as you do. But you can’t hide from me, Xan. You try, but I see you. Right now I see a woman who’s too exhausted to be placing blame anywhere.”
“I can’t help it,” I whispered.
“I know. And you know I’m right.”
“Also, insufferable.”

 

Overall, “Tone of Voice” didn’t grab me in the feels as hard as “Failure to Communicate” but it’s still a lovely book that I really enjoyed. Xandri Corelel is one of my favorite autistic characters out of anything ever, and I sincerely hope to see many more books of her adventures.

The Verdict: Recommended

Disclosure: I have briefly interacted with Kaia Sønderby on Twitter. I read her book by buying an e-copy on Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 58: The Trans Space Octopus Congregation

Today’s Book: “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation,” a short story collection by Bogi Takács.

Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!

This is a generally excellent collection. As is often the case with a single-author collection from an author I know, many of the stories were not new to me, and they won’t be new to long-time Autistic Book Party readers either (see the Reviews Index). Much of the joy of such a collection is in seeing the stories arranged next to each other, seeing more strongly how themes recur and patterns emerge.

“The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” ranges from historical fantasy to modern-day political allegories to far-future space opera, but there is a remarkable unity to the themes throughout. The writing is accessible and clear, but there is a very strong Bogi Takács aesthetic, which is hard to describe until you’ve seen it. It’s to do with powerful magic-users at risk from those who want to abuse them as weapons; matter-of-fact acceptance of states which in another author’s hands would be body horror; sensory seeking; Jewish mysticism; and non-sexual BDSM. Eir worlds are diverse and complex, with multiple cultures mingling and clashing, even within very short works. When political and other large organizations enter the stories, it’s with a wry awareness of those organizations’ flaws, ranging from the well-meaning but inefficient to the horrific; but it’s never without a sense of hope, if only in the sense of ordinary people making the effort to help each other. Those octopi from the title also appear here and there (though, sadly, not in the exact manner the title implies; there is no literal religious congregation of transgender space octopi).

The word “autism” is never used, but non-neurotypical characters abound in this book. The Ereni – citizens of a magical planet of autistic people – appear in several stories, though their universe is large, and they are mainly seen in minor roles here, through the eyes of other sorts of people. In works set elsewhere, characters stim, perseverate, have motor coordination issues, and generally behave in such a way that it’s easy to read autism in if you want to. Queer and trans characters also abound, as the title implies, often in the form of casual but clearly spelled-out nonbinary rep.

I’m not sure I have much else to say about Bogi’s writing that I haven’t already said in prior reviews, but “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” showcases the author at eir best. If you’re a fan of the writing of eirs that you’ve seen online, you should definitely check this one out.

The Verdict: Recommended

Disclosure: Bogi Takács is someone I consider a personal friend. I received a free electronic review copy of this book.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 51: Every Mountain Made Low

Today’s Book: “Every Mountain Made Low” by Alex White.

The Plot: Loxley Fiddleback, a disabled woman in a strange dystopian pit of a city who has the ability to see ghosts, sets out to avenge her only friend’s murder.

Autistic Character(s): Loxley, our protagonist.

I want to talk about Loxley first, before I talk about anything else. Loxley is a fascinating character. She also illustrates one of the problems I have with how autistic characters are marketed (or not marketed) to the public. The back cover of “Every Mountain Made Low” says:

Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers.

“Crippling anxiety” is such an inaccurate description on the publisher’s part that I’m still mad about it. There are some autistic people who could forgivably be mistaken for anxious NTs. People who mostly pass, but are afraid to leave their house or socialize because they don’t know how it works, etc. It is very apparent even from the early pages of the book that Loxley is not one of these people.

Indeed, while nobody in this book seems to know the word “autism,” Loxley doesn’t pass at all. Her movements, speech, and thinking are visibly different from those of the people around her, in ways that result in other characters calling her slurs (including the R-word) with depressing frequency. Under stress, she often stops understanding speech altogether. Loxley is not a “low-functioning” stereotype – she works three jobs! – but all of those jobs would be impossible without informal accommodations made by pitying NTs, and the pitying NTs aren’t usually nice about it. Sensory overload makes functioning in many everyday environments impossible for her, and even carrying on a conversation in the expected way is difficult, let alone making friends.

(At some point a character also calls Loxley a “mongoloid,” which suggests that she might have both Down syndrome and autism; or maybe that character is just an extra special bigot. It’s not clear.)

I’m not even sure I would classify Loxley as having anxiety (in the sense of an anxiety disorder) at all. She is fearful when she encounters new things, overloading things, ghosts who she believes will literally kill her if they get too close (although the reality turns out to be more complex), and things that contradict her worldview. She experiences sensory overload very intensely, but overload and fear are not the same emotion. Otherwise, much of her behavior in the book is actually quite bold.

Loxley’s narrative voice consistently does a thing that I really enjoy. A lot of books from the POV of autistic characters focus on trying to explain to NT readers why the autistic character behaves the way they do. This can be bad (an othering Autism Voice) or good (as in the case of books like On the Edge of Gone, which humanize their narrators by explaining exactly what about a given situation is so stressful for them).

“Every Mountain Made Low” seems to gleefully do the opposite. Loxley’s thought processes are shown the way any narrator’s would be, and there is certainly an internal logic to them, but it is a logic that doesn’t seem to care at all if NT readers will find it logical:

She kept her hands close together, humming and picking at the plastic as quickly as she could. She had to get that tape off. No one should tape stuff to themselves, because now, instead of skin, she had tape there. She had to get her skin back. She wanted to explain, but all that came out were jumbled noises, probably because of the tape.

This kind of thinking feels real and familiar to me, especially from times when I am more overwhelmed, but it’s something I rarely see narrated in this way and I love it.

The Hole where Loxley lives is more or less literally a hellhole, arranged in nine concentric circles of increasing squalor and misery. The misery comes from unfettered capitalism and social inequality, not from any divine source, but the Hole also holds many secrets, and ghosts are not the only supernatural thing Loxley will encounter before the book is done.

The sheer dystopianness of “Every Mountain Made Low” can make it a difficult read, especially in the first few chapters, in which Loxley goes about her daily life and terrible things keep on happening to her – including an attempted sexual assault. The assault at first felt gratuitous to me, but I realized later in the book that it is actually a pivotal moment in Loxley’s character arc. Her mother, long dead when the story begins, gave Loxley many rules about what was and wasn’t safe; when Loxley is assaulted by someone her mother told her to trust, she begins to realize that what her mother told her is not always true. While Loxley has realistic trauma from the assault, it’s also a moment she returns to as she grows: while her previous life crumbles around her, she learns to discard the rules she was taught and make her own. It’s a difficult but important arc to see for an autistic character, when in real life we’re so often given oversimplified social rules that don’t actually keep us safe.

The setting never stops being dystopian as heck, but it begins to feel less oppressive after the first 1/3 or so, as Loxley becomes are more active character who navigates the Hole as she wishes and determines her own destiny.

In fact, it can be startling how active a character Loxley becomes once her friend Nora dies, and once she sets herself to avenging Nora’s murder. In one of the first such moments, trapped in a car with the head villain and his henchmen, Loxley calmly informs the head villain that she is going to kill him. It isn’t bluster, nor even a threat in the usual sense; in Loxley’s mind, it is a fact, and there is no reason not to state facts when asked.

These moments continue throughout the rest of the book. Loxley has an assertiveness, once her mind is set on a course of action, that is entirely and wonderfully autistic; and she has the capacity for violence, when cornered, to back it up. If I refer to her actions as startling, it’s because of how rarely a character like Loxley in fiction is allowed to be violent and assertive. If Loxley were a neurotypical man mourning the death of a woman, her actions would be entirely within the bounds of what action/thriller stories of this type allow. But for someone like Loxley to take on the role of the vengeful, punishing action hero is entirely unexpected and wonderful. It’s an approach that doesn’t win Loxley many friends, but one that ultimately leads to her victory.

Another ability Loxley has is that, as she interacts more with certain ghosts, she starts to have flashes of memory from their point of view, and to be able to call up some of their skills when needed – including social skills. For example, she calls up Nora’s insight in order to ask a favor from her employer more effectively:

She sounded just like Nora. She wasn’t Nora, but she could conjure all the turns of phrase and speech of the dead woman. She could hold her body in such a way as to make it more appealing. It wasn’t as though she could draw forth the ghost’s memories, but she could sense its subtle influence on her mind. She could look at Don’s face without trying to puzzle through the multitude of muscles that created his expression.

It can be dangerous to give autistic characters skills like this – magical abilities that can make them less autistic when the plot requires it. (I previously complained about the use of such an ability in “Mouse.“) Here I think it works a bit better than it did in “Mouse,” for a couple of reasons. Loxley doesn’t overrely on her ability; it’s one tool in her inventory, and one that comes with a heavy, exhausting cost. It also has longer-lasting, subtler consequences. Loxley sometimes behaves, under the ghosts’ influence, in ways that she didn’t expect to. Rather than clarifying everything, the ghosts’ perspective often leaves her with difficult questions about the world that she inhabits and the people she thought she knew in life.

There is one major flaw with this book, however, and it’s to do with the treatment of race.

One of the beliefs Loxley was taught by her mother, and has to eventually discard, is that black people are untrustworthy. Early on in the book she refuses a black man’s help for precisely this reason. Just as with her mother’s other erroneous teachings, she eventually learns better, even ending up with a black friend and a black love interest who are two of the most sympathetic characters in the book. But this doesn’t happen until much later, by which time many readers of color will already have been thrown out of the narrative.

When she does get the chance to interact with a group of black people, Loxley unthinkingly parrots several of her mother’s statements about them. The only pushback she gets is a mild, “Your mother was kind of a racist, wasn’t she?” Loxley learns that her beliefs about black people were incorrect, but she doesn’t learn that they were wrong in any ethical sense, nor does it seem to be important to any of the black characters that she learn this. At another point in the book, Loxley is startled and distressed when she learns that Nora had unspoken ableist attitudes, but she never makes the inference that her racist thoughts, spoken or unspoken, might have been equally distressing to her black friends. Nor, for that matter, does it present any obstacle to her romantic relationship with a black woman who says her own set of casually ableist things.

Even though several black characters in the latter half of the story are quite sympathetic, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that the “good” black people are portrayed as being people who don’t challenge Loxley about her racist statements – and who, incidentally, both end up making immense personal sacrifices for Loxley’s sake.

Loxley’s racism doesn’t feel necessary to the story. It doesn’t seem to be an inherent part of the setting, at least not to the degree that Loxley experiences it (a scene from Nora’s perspective merely neutrally notes that “people of all colors” are present in a room, while Loxley at the beginning of the story appears to be entirely unfamiliar with interacting with black people). And while it serves as an example of an incorrect belief of her mother’s that Loxley needs to unlearn, there are plenty of other examples that already do that job in the narrative.

Readers who like the sound of “Every Mountain Made Low,” but want a better book where race is concerned, might instead try the equally gritty “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon.

Despite these missteps, my overall impression of “Every Mountain Made Low” was positive. It’s a memorable book with a tense and compelling plot which was hard for me to put down once it got going, and it features a strong autistic protagonist of a type I’ve never seen before. The world of autistic SFF characters is richer for having Loxley Fiddleback in it. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Alex White’s books.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

Disclosure: I have briefly corresponded with Alex White online.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 50: Conservation of Shadows

Today’s Book: “Conservation of Shadows,” a short story collection by Yoon Ha Lee

People who have read my reviews of Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, and Revenant Gun will not be surprised that I am a big fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s writing, or that this fandom extends to his short stories as well.

“Conservation of Shadows” is an excellent collection which shows off Lee’s strengths as a writer while also displaying surprising breadth.

Lee is most famous for war-torn space operas full of wildly imaginative, magic-like technology, and these types of stories are certainly on display throughout the collection. Folded, origami-like papers come to life as battle drones (Ghostweight); a group of exiles compose music in honor of ships that have flown into a black hole (Swanwatch); a gun exists that will leave the person shot unharmed but erase all their ancestors from existence (Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain); a book contains the souls of the dead and can be opened to draw on those souls’ abilities (The Book of Locked Doors).

But Lee also strays skillfully out of that genre, from stories of pure high fantasy in which necromancers or demons battle, to the urban sci-fi fantasy of the story “Blue Ink,” in which an ordinary modern-day child is summoned to the end of the world.

My personal favorite stories include “Iseul’s Lexicon,” a longer tale involving strange, cruel, fey-like aliens, in which linguistics are applied defensively to a magical language; and the title story, closing out the collection, in which the myth of the Descent of Inanna is repeated again and again by artificial, far-future entities.

Fans of Shuos Jedao (and, let’s face it, who isn’t a fan of Jedao?) will also enjoy “The Battle of Candle Arc,” his first published appearance, in which we watch him win a space battle using clever tactics against ridiculous odds, and get a hint of the motivation that drives him all through the Machineries of Empire trilogy.

There is a hint of non-neurotypicality in some stories, including “The Shadow Postulates,” in which the protagonist briefly mentions wanting to stim by unraveling the tassels of a carpet, but refrains so as not to disturb her roommate.

But for the most part, non-neurotypicality isn’t highlighted in this collection. It’s simply a very good group of stories by a very good autistic author, and that should be reason enough to go check it out.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Disclosure: I have interacted very occasionally with Yoon Ha Lee online.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 49 and a half: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!

These past two months marked the release of Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, and many autistic authors appeared in this issue at the top of their game – both existing favorite authors of mine and at least one voice which is new to me.

*

Rita Chen, “Ctenophore Soul

[Autistic author] A poem about the central role of damage and injury in… well, all of life, and of choosing to live with the damage instead of trying to erase it. I love the sea imagery in this – I am a sucker for anything involving weird sea creatures and a ctenophore is a real thing. [Recommended-2]

*

Rose Lemberg, “core/debris/core

[Autistic author] This is a poem about skin disease, but also about aesthetics and shame, about the desire to write a future in which everything is clean and perfect, even though this denies and erases the reality of human bodies – particularly disabled human bodies, but also all of them. Angry and compelling. [Recommended-2]

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A. Merc Rustad, “The Frequency of Compassion”

[Autistic author] Ok so this story just happens to push, like, SEVENTEEN of my personal story buttons at once and I love it. “The Frequency of Compassion” is a first contact story in which Kaityn, a hyperempathic autistic astronaut, encounters a wounded member of an alien hive mind. I love the hive mind – a friendly entity/ies in which individuals remain distinct and valued parts of the whole – so much. I love Kaityn’s helpful AI friend Horatio. I love the way everyone respects each other’s pronouns and needs, how the alien makes mistakes with Kaityn’s mental boundaries and then apologizes and fixes them, how both the AI and the aliens respect and make adjustments for Kaityn’s needs, including the need for a few days of downtime after a stressful experience and for forms of sensory stimulation that aren’t overloading. I love how Kaityn is kind-hearted and interested in art, despite their need to withdraw from other people. I love how they are hyperempathic on a sensory level, but are also shown as deeply caring even when they don’t sense emotions directly – respecting the imagined boundaries of the moon they land on, for instance, with a characteristically (but un-stereotypically) autistic sense of animism. I just. I love almost everything about this. GO READ IT. [Recommended-1]

*

Bogi Takács, “Spatiotemporal Discontinuity

[Autistic author] This poem shares some traits in common with Toward the Luminous Towers and other work of Bogi’s – depicting, not a real-life disability, but the experiences of a person in some other world who is modified for some sort of incredible journey through physical or conceptual space, and who has difficulty with ordinary embodied existence afterwards. Bogi’s writing about this type of techno-magic and its complex personal and social effects is always fascinating, and this one is no exception. [Recommended-2]

*

Finally, while I do not review essays, there are interesting essays in this issue by Bogi, A.C. Buchanan – two by A.C. Buchanan, in fact – Ira Gladkova, and me.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 49: Changeling

Today’s Book: “Changeling” by Delia Sherman

The Plot: Neef, a mortal changeling (i.e. a mortal who was swapped with a fairy and brought to the fairy realms as a child) accidentally breaks a geas. To be allowed to return to her home in a fairy version of Central Park, she must undergo a dangerous quest.

Autistic Character(s): Neef’s fairy changeling counterpart (i.e. the fairy who was swapped with Neef and brought up by mortals). Both Neef and Changeling share a legal, human name, but since true names are dangerous in the fairy world, Neef’s counterpart is referred to mostly as “Changeling”.

Changeling folklore is my problematic fave. The idea of fairies switching their babies with human babies – resulting in human parents having to take care of a disabled, or otherwise defective, fairy child – goes back deep in Western culture. There’s something compelling to many disabled people about the idea that we are not broken or defective humans, however we might appear – we are simply magical creatures who don’t fit into a human’s world. But of course, there’s also something compelling to many ableist parents about the idea that they were owed a normal child, and someone stole it – and that their real, disabled child isn’t quite theirs.

While we no longer believe in fairies, it’s not difficult to see echoes of the changeling myth in modern parents who complain of regressive autism “stealing” their child, or who speak with victory about “getting their child back” when various issues improve. Nor is it difficult to trace a lineage from the parents of changeling folklore, who often threatened the disabled child with harm in hopes of scaring it away and getting the original one back, to various dangerous quack treatments for autism today.

Some disabled people, including myself at times, find something empowering in the idea of being magical creatures. Others find it literally dehumanizing, and will fight tooth and nail to be recognized as always and only and entirely human. (Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s essay on “The Shape of Water” gives an example of this latter perspective.)

Anyway, Delia Sherman’s “Changeling” is a middle-grade fantasy adventure that doesn’t get even a little bit into any of this complexity, which might explain some of my issues with it.

Or maybe that’s not fair. I don’t expect middle-grade books to be super intellectually complex, or to grapple with all the emotional issues that concern me as an adult. I may be barking up the wrong reviewing tree.

Changeling’s role in the story is a very familiar one for autistic sidekicks. Neef discovers her early in the quest, in a dangerous situation, and impulsively promises to keep her safe even though Changeling annoys her. From that point on, Changeling tags along on the rest of the quest: mostly a burden, mostly annoying to Neef, occasionally very useful, always overtly displaying one stereotypical autistic trait or another, and mostly too busy melting down (or shutting down, or engaging in desparate stimming as she tries to cope with all these new experiences) to give her perspective on anything in particular.

Neef is a cutely bratty tween, and she has no training in how to deal with autistic people, so I don’t exactly expect her to be good at dealing with Changeling, but her consistently annoyed cluelessness didn’t exactly make me enjoy the book.

Changeling stumped up behind me, her face stony. “You took me by surprise,” she said. “I do not like surprises.”

I was in no mood to deal with fairy nerves. “Well, you’re just going to have to get used to them.”

“Why?”

“We’re on a quest, that’s why. There’s going to be surprises, and things jumping out of bushes, and all kinds of things you don’t like. If you melt down every time that happens, we’re dead. And I mean that literally.”

Her mouth set in a grim line. “I am afraid. I want to go home.”

“Me, too. Remember what I told you back at the Museum? We have to finish the quest first.”

Changeling hummed. I tapped my foot. “Very well,” she said at last. “I will do my best to expect the unexpected, and I will try not to have a meltdown. It is only fair to warn you that I am not always in control of them.”

She sounded so like the Pooka promising to try and behave that my irritation vanished. “And I’ll do my best to explain things when I can.”

We do get one interesting bit of world-building about changelings early on. Not only is Changeling an autistic child, as the folklore would suggest, but Neef recognizes many of her autistic traits as fairy traits. She counts items to soothe herself, because many fairies also have a counting compulsion; she cannot stand to be touched, because neither can many fairies; her meltdowns are “fairy fits,” and at least one actual fairy has one of those during the story as well.

Neef does make accommodations for a few of these traits, such as holding on to Changeling by her clothes, when hanging on to each other is necessary, instead of holding her hand. But if Changeling’s traits are fairy traits, and Neef has spent her entire life learning how to get along among fairies, then something doesn’t quite add up. Her knowledge of mythological fairies is extensive and she has been deliberately taught and tested on it often – but her knowledge of how to deal with Changeling is really quite small.

I find myself wishing that the book was told from both perspectives and not just Neef’s, because I really want to know what Changeling thinks of many of the developments in the book. She has just discovered that fairies are real and that she, technically, is one. How does she feel about that? Does she want to learn more about fairies in order to better understand herself, or to cling to her adoptive family? How does she feel about Neef, who is essentially a non-autistic version of herself, and who doesn’t seem to like her much? In the latter half of the story, she spends a lot of time looking into a magic handheld mirror that gives her information; what is she watching and learning in there, apart from the quest-relevant things that Neef asks for? Changeling doesn’t say anything about any of these things, and Neef is profoundly uncurious about them.

Changeling also, as I mentioned, does very useful and clever things for Neef a few times, in between shutting/melting down. It’s very unclear whether, and in what way, this changes Neef’s opinion about her; Neef is self-centered like many tweens, and is more concerned with charging ahead to the next part of the quest.

At the end of the book, there are signs that Neef and Changeling have begun to like each other a bit more. Changeling asks Neef to come visit her in the future, and Neef seems moved by the request. But like many friendships and romances in adventure stories, this felt a bit tacked on. I had very little sense of when in the book this sense of friendship had emerged or why.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book more than I’m letting on. Sherman’s fairy New York is a lively and charming place that I enjoyed exploring with Neef. But from a representation standpoint, “Changeling” was a lot like reading a middle-grade version of “Silence” or “Hawk.” Another story where an NT protagonist drags around an autistic character, who is sometimes plot-useful but mostly an annoying burden. I am tired of reading this story. Given the rich emotional significance of changeling folklore is to many autistic people, Changeling’s arc feels like a missed opportunity.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

Disclosure: I have never interacted with Delia Sherman.

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Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 13: Dragon

(First published Feb 18, 2014)

Today’s Book: “Dragon” by Steven Brust.

The Plot: Vlad Taltos, an assassin / witch / general-purpose organized criminal, gets drawn unwillingly into a war between Dragonlords following the theft of a mysterious weapon.

(FYI, this is the eighth book in a series that will eventually have 17.)

Autistic Character(s): Daymar, a Hawklord and powerful psychic.

Daymar isn’t described as having any particular condition, but I am not the only reader to interpret him as being on the spectrum. He is responsible, efficient, and very good at his job, but is at the same time confused by many social expectations and reactions that the other characters take for granted.

While this in itself is a familiar autistic archetype, the details of how Brust writes Daymar go pleasantly against stereotype. Instead of showing his confusion through rude and arrogant behaviour, as many fictional Aspies do, Daymar’s response when he doesn’t understand something is to ask polite questions. I find this rather adorable. Vlad finds it annoying; but Vlad is something of an ornery antihero anyway and I do not think that his opinions reflect those of the author.

Unfortunately, as Rose Lemberg warned me, Daymar doesn’t get much screen time. I happen to quite enjoy Vlad and the Dragaera series in general, though I have been reading the books piecemeal and shamefully out of order. But if you aren’t already a fan, it’s probably not worth reading the whole book just for Daymar; plus, there are aspects of the story which won’t make as much sense to readers who are unused to this storyworld.

Daymar may or may not have more to do in “Hawk”, another installment of the series, which may or may not come out this year.

The Verdict: Marginal

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.